Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology
by Edward T. Oakes
Eerdmans, 471 pages, $44
We think of God as glorious and magnificent, the creator and lord of all things. And yet Christianity tells us to seek him in an infant’s manger in a humble stable. We look to him for life and light, and yet the gospel story begins at night in a candlelit stable and its crux is found in the dark chapters that describe the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus.
The central claim of the gospel, Edward Oakes notes in his richly historical and rigorously conceptual study of the meaning and significance of Jesus Christ, Infinity Dwindled to Infancy, is that an itinerant rabbi in first-century Galilee is also ‘God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.’ But how can the infinite become finite without losing its infinity? The poets have been content to believe and leave to wonder, but reason, Oakes concludes, echoing Pascal, wants to give reasons for believing what goes beyond reason.
This means that the logic of the Incarnation must establish its own norms of rationality, stemming from the Logos. Oakes uses an image of Chesterton’s to explain this: There is no logic to the shape of a key. Its logic is: It turns the lock. In terms of worldly logic, the christological confession will always take on the structure of paradox, because it has established its own norms of rationality internal to the confession.
Oakes, a Jesuit teaching at the seminary of the archdiocese of Chicago, guides his readers through the ins and outs of Christology, the conceptually disciplined attempt by the Church to think through the paradoxes of Christ without resolving or distorting them. He works through the tradition from the Bible forward. The first two chapters analyze the New Testament and grapple with the significance of modern historical scholarship. Subsequent chapters take up the Church Fathers, medieval theologians, and Reformation figures before turning to treatments of the Christologies of early modern and then modern theologians, ranging from John Wesley to Hegel, from Adolf von Harnack to Karl Rahner.
The New Testament presents a range of what Oakes calls surface data, the apparently contradictory titles for and descriptions of Jesus. Some (prophet, suffering servant, and high priest) refer to what Jesus said and did in his earthly life, others (Messiah and Son of Man) point to the future work of Christ, and still others (Lord, Son of God, and Word) to his ongoing or eternal significance.
In a subtle chapter on the history and development of the different strands of the New Testament, Oakes argues that these diverse descriptions of Jesus can be maintained together only in light of the resurrection, for in this moment of triumph the story of Jesus becomes the story of God’s entrance into human history as the power of redemption. Put differently, the array of historical data that makes up the many layers and perspectives of the New Testament—the plurality and heterogeneity of the finite—gets decisively reinterpreted by the resurrection, an event in but not of history.
Elements of the past, Oakes writes, referring to the Old Testament patterns of thought from which the various titles and descriptions of Jesus are drawn, œwere not so much jettisoned, except where clearly wrong, as rearranged into a new configuration, like iron filings atop a sheet of paper when a magnet is placed under them.
Oakes explains well the different ways in which theologians have tried to think through the paradoxes of Christ without resolving or distorting them. Thomas Aquinas’ notion of the beatific vision of Christ, for example, describes Jesus as at once a human wayfarer who struggles and overcomes impediments, but also as the Son of God incarnate who enjoys ongoing union with the Father, and thus throughout his earthly and fully human life Jesus’ self-consciousness always remains perfected by the beatific vision.
The paradox here is immediate. How can the newborn infant enjoy a vision of God? Scripture also seems to speak against this view, saying of Christ that he œgrew in wisdom, age, and grace.” Oakes labors to show that Aquinas provides cogent responses to these and other objections, but he concludes that we must affirm the two sides of the paradox—Jesus the human wayfarer and Jesus the incarnate Son of God—and if Aquinas’ view of the self-consciousness of Jesus fails to do so convincingly, we must modify his theology or perhaps retire it and take up a different set of concepts.
Cyril of Alexandria adopts a similar version of this paradoxical affirmation of both a finite human and infinite divine interior life for Jesus. When he observes that the one incapable of suffering did suffer—that the Logos suffered impassibly—the single psychological person of Christ is affirmed along with his humanity (suffering) and divinity (impassibility). There, Oakes argues, we get the essence of Christology and soteriology in one sentence.
More important than his insights into the history of theology is his reminder that the paradoxes of Christology not only give rise to theology, but, when rightly understood, they also return to worship. In refreshing ways, his discussions of ancient and medieval Christology culminate in an analysis of early-modern and modern spiritualities.
For example, with their emphasis on the ongoing sufferings of Jesus, the devotees of the Sacred Heart extended to the life of the risen Lord Cyril’s idea that the impassible God suffered on the cross. This allowed those who followed a spirituality of the Sacred Heart to meditate on Jesus’ love still bearing the world’s pain. The triumphant Lord—the divine side of the paradox—maintains an ongoing relation to the human side, expressed in this early-modern spirituality as adoration of Jesus’ genuinely human concern after his ascension. A similar approach characterizes Count Zinzendorf’s stress on the wounds of the crucified Christ as the place from which deliverance flows. Again, the risen Lord’s divinity remains soteriologically bonded to his humanity, and therefore to ours.
Following the lead of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, Oakes treats Christ’s descent into hell as an absolute abandonment that establishes once and for all divine nearness to every aspect of our humanity, even the abyss of death. Holy Saturday provides a profound occasion to contemplate the drama of the paradox of infinity dwindled to infancy, now transposed into the paradox of the indomitable power of life enduring the dissolving nothingness of death.
The strength of Oakes’ presentation is his consistent return to the paradox of the infinite becoming finite as the unifying principle of the many different themes and threads of christological reflection over the course of Christian history. Yet his reading of the Christian tradition is not always fully convincing. His defense of Anselm of Canterbury, for example, does not do justice to Anselm’s use of the concept of an infinite or unpayable debt. With this notion Anselm preserves the divine side of the christological paradox, reminding us that we cannot remake ourselves or repair the brokenness of creation. This allows Anselm to prioritize grace: God and only God can initiate a cosmic reversal of the consequences of sin.
I also found Oakes’ treatment of Wesley’s Christology uneven, perhaps because he relies too heavily on a Barthian analysis of Wesley. For a Barthian, Wesley’s Christology overemphasizes the divine nature of Jesus, but Wesley’s aim was to affirm the priority of grace without removing the need for human responsibility—another paradox that has bedeviled Protestant and Catholic theology since the Reformation. Wesley’s heavy emphasis on the divine nature allowed him to make mortification and discipline of the flesh part of our union with Christ. To be true to Christ involves being true to his divinity, the side of the paradox Wesley emphasized in order to emphasize our own vocations as creatures called to share in divine holiness. To see this point with clarity, however, requires investigating the relationship between the Spirit and Christ, a topic strangely lacking in Oakes’ treatment as a whole.
These limitations do not diminish the achievement of Infinity Dwindled to Infancy. Oakes gives a great deal of credit to Evangelicals and Catholics Together (of which he is a member, as am I) for providing the inspiration to write this book. What has always struck me, he writes, is how little divides us (at least in my estimation) in matters of Christology.
True, we continue to debate the doctrine of justification, and certainly Protestants find the modern dogmatic pronouncements about the Virgin Mary a stumbling block. Yet Oakes remains optimistic about the pursuit of Christian unity, and rightly, I think. I cannot help but think, he writes, that a return to the confession that does indeed unite us—the Lordship of Christ—might serve as a lodestar if we hit other doctrinal storms along the way. His nuanced and often poetic accounts of our common tradition of reflection on Christ have made the star shine more brightly.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.